Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Architectural 3D Printing on Mars

NASA - by way of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Mars Society – bring us their vision of an architecturally 3D printed Mars habitat through a competition meant to “develop state-of-the-art architectural concepts”. Side stepping the technical depth of their submission – this is not like building with LEGO – I jump directly to the proposed structure’s architectural qualities. The article makes pains to stress the design’s “French sci-fi aesthetic” but when running down that angle in preparation for this post I was greatly confused: French sci-fi architecture is normally associated with the appearance the structure has always been there or, though futuristic, has been aged and distressed in some way. To my eyes, however, the proposed structure is pure Japanese modernism; non-threatening and simple. I find the concept itself quite strong, the linked article describing the habitat resembling “nothing so much as an igloo crossed with a large droplet of water sitting on the surface of Mars, contained by its own surface tension.” I can’t help but feel, however, that had I known about the competition earlier I could have taken a design even further. Be that as it may, I will withhold my final verdict until we see more renderings.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Engineering Marvel Being Built in Toronto

More and more often in our cities, the need for development clashes with the desire to save our shared architectural heritage. Our forefathers having inconveniently established architectural gems on land which would later become much more valuable than the buildings which sit on it. This conflict is addressed in the addition to Toronto’s Queen Richmond Center. In the images accompanying this post, one can see the proposed office building perched above the historic 4-storey masonry building.

But does this structure constitute an “engineering marvel” as the article suggests? Here I come down firmly on the negative. That this is being built this way did not confound my expectations of what is possible in field of structural engineering. However, I do wish to applaud both the client and architect for the boldness of their thought. I congratulate them for committing substantial funds to such an innovative and unique design. It is for these qualities I wish to celebrate the building, as it signals how a group of people value good design.

“The obvious solution of using conventional columns would not work since a large size and number of columns would have been required. What consulting engineer Stephenson Engineering Ltd and Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co Architects Inc decided to do was to use a series of 70-foot-tall “delta frames”, each comprised of one-metre-diameter tubular steel columns shooting up through the new development’s atrium (already a part of the four-storey structure) to support the new tower. With high lateral stability, the tubes that make up the delta frames are positioned at angles to intersect each other at midpoint for improved gravity and lateral force resistance. The key to the strength of these steel tubular columns is that they will be filled with concrete to increase load-bearing capacity.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

“Engineering Firm Acquisition not about LEGO Architecture” says No One

WSP Global continues to acquire high-quality private firms with news reaching us this week the firm has acquired Halvorson and Partners ("H+P"), a 40-person structural engineering firm based in Chicago. WSP has some kind words to welcome their new employees:
“H+P has completed structural designs for high-profile, award-winning projects throughout the U.S., as well as internationally through an office in Shanghai and a strong presence in the Middle East. Its portfolio includes the Burj Mohammed Bin Rashid Tower in Abu Dhabi, which won the "2015 Best Tall Building Award" for the Middle East and Africa from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Other prominent projects include: OneEleven, a 60-story luxury apartment tower in Chicago which recently won a "Best Project Award" from the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois; Wolf Point West Tower, the first tower in a multi-phase US$1 billion development along the Chicago River in Chicago; and Vantone Tower, a 600-foot-tall corporate headquarters in Tianjin, China.”
This, of course, comes in the context of the much larger acquisition by WSP in 2014 of Parsons Brinckerhoff which extended WSP’s service capabilities around the world. The acquisition seems mostly to have been about expanding their position in land and air civil engineering services. WSP goes on to say about their current service offerings: The firm provides services to transform the built environment and restore the natural environment, and its expertise ranges from environmental remediation to urban planning, from engineering iconic buildings to designing sustainable transport networks, and from developing the energy sources of the future to enabling new ways of extracting essential resources.”

Trying to derive WSP’s growth strategy from its behavior is difficult. Not only because it’s not my area of expertise but also because from the preliminary evidence presented they seem bent on global domination through acquisition. Locally the firm has multiple offices in Calgary spread around the city but offers little information on its website on what distinguishes each office. I assume in Calgary each is rooted in different phases of oil production. But considering all the small offices located around Canada, growing to 500 offices located in 37 countries around the world, that means a lot of money being sent back to the mothership. WSP Global’s headquarters are in Montreal.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Creating Engineer and Architect Stories

It’s rather trivial to prove countries with more engineers per capita are generally economically better off than comparable countries and from this point flows all sorts of other positive benefits such as higher levels of education among the general population, increased resources for arts and sciences, better health outcomes, etc. Less easy to prove is that to increase engineering enrollment; engineering needs a PR campaign. This is exactly what Polarmedia.co.uk are trying to do, except perhaps with even more ambition.
There is an established pattern of neglect for high quality engineer and architect narratives. Compare the portrayals seen of other professions like doctors and lawyers. There’s really no equivalent to Game of Thrones for engineers and architects. The long temporal nature of building projects is an obstacle to audience engagement for one. More surprising is the neglect of architect stories: Architects tend to be egomaniacs (full disclosure; I trained as one) and therefore when two meet in opposition, because of each’s inherent energy, more often than not, sparks tend to fly. Why this point hasn’t been leveraged as a source for architect stories is a mystery.

Ultimately I don’t mind these efforts to promote STEM professions, or “humanize” them as the Polar Media representative suggests. So long as we don’t get carried away by imaginary narratives and remember to address at the same time the real obstacles people have in entering the engineering field. Removing barriers to higher education, be they financial or academic, seems just as important as “sexying” up the engineering industry. But otherwise, good luck to Polar Media. If interested in helping them with their project, more information is available through the link above. 

Friday, September 04, 2015

Architectural 3D Printing With Glass

I’ve had a lot of admiration for MIT since learning Noam Chomsky once taught there. But more recently its MIT’s engineering prowess which draws attention. Their work on drones - and the swarm mathematics which drive them - is especially innovative. But for this post I wish to focus on news this week MIT’s Material Lab has introduced a method for3D printing glass. A technology which they are calling “G3DP” effectively prints molten glass, which, when cooled, can be used for a variety of architectural features. Left missing from the article is specifications as to its strength. One of the architecturally useful characteristics of glass, if manufactured with a minimum of imperfections, can be its high compressive strength. Normally 3D printed materials can be assumed to be weaker than their traditionally produced counter-parts. If, in the meantime, only smaller architectural features are feasible with the technology I think the process will be a boon for great design. Vimeo Video